Book # 2 – Nickel and Dimed


[nik-uh l-uh n-dahym]

verb (used with object), nick·el-and-dimed or nick·eled-and-dimed, nick·el-and-dim·ing or nick·el·ing-and-dim·ing.

1. to expose to financial hardship or bankruptcy by the accumulation of small expenses, bills, etc.: We’re being nickel-and-dimed to death by these small weekly expenses.

2. to hinder, annoy, or harass with trivialities or nonessentials: to be nickeled-and-dimed by petty criticisms.

Our sharpest and most original social critic goes “undercover” as an unskilled worker to reveal the dark side of American prosperity.

Millions of Americans work full time, year round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job — any job — can be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She lived in trailer parks and crumbling residential motels. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you int to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-rent America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity — a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate stratagems for survival. Read it for the smoldering clarity of Ehrenreich’s perspective and for a rare view of how “prosperity” looks from the bottom. You will never see anything — from a motel bathroom to a restaurant meal — in quite the same way again.

Ok, I’m in! I mean why not? I’m nowhere near the 10% and would consider myself in the lower to mid-tier of the 90%. Still, I would say that I am poor what with the division of 90% VS 10% and the seeming obliteration of the middle class. It’s like being Latino (which I am) where we’re in between the racial divide between African-Americans and Caucasian. Of course, there is no merit to the previous statement just a personal observation that plagues today’s headlines. Sure, there is a blip here and there about how we Latinos need not be here and should go back to our own respective countries (I’m American, FYI – born and bred) even the color of my skin may indicate otherwise. But, for the most part, blacks and whites are at the forefront in this racial war. Another story, for another time.

The second book in this teetering “journey” of reading as many books as I can for the year has nearly come to a grinding halt. Not because of the usual obstacles that plague my existence (work and family – I kid about the latter) but rather because this book was, well, rather boring. Journalist (name) goes “undercover” and takes on the arduous task of taking on low wages and trying scrape by in life by making her rent and has money and, well, that’s about it. Maybe I zoned out when she talked about the other things in life that contribute to our daily expenses like health and car insurance, electric, heat and the other plethora of bills that seem to haunt so many of us. According to Barbara Ehrenreich, she needed two jobs just to pay rent to live in a hotel and some basic necessities such as food.

To be fair, the book was written in 2001 (over 15 years ago!) and times have certainly changed… or have they? I read this book and base my opinions on my own experiences, so it’s difficult for me to assess as a whole with regards to this book. Have I ever lived on my own without the help my family? Sort of, I mean there was college, but my parents were always there as my safety net. Still, never was I concerned with the author’s well-being or state of being OK because I knew that she was not poor nor hurt to make ends meet because she was not poor and a trip to the bank would wipe away all of her “problems.” The author speaks as if she knew what it was to be poor and downtrodden just because she spent a few weeks (months?) working as a maid, a waitress, and even a Walmart associate. Sure, these jobs can be tough but just because you spent a snippet of your life in these shoes does not give her an inkling to fully comprehend the struggle that these people have to go through. I will give her credit where credit is due and somewhat commend her half-ass attempt at taking a look behind the proverbial curtain of what it feels like to be amongst the less fortunate. Credit because not many people would partake in such an experience, so I applaud her effort.

Then, I read this passage on the first page and very first paragraph in the on-set of her experience in Minnesota:

“From the air Minnesota is the very perfection of early summer-the blue of the lakes merging with the blue of the sky, neatly sculpted clouds pasted here and there, strips of farmland in alternating charteuse and emerald-a lush, gentle landscape, seemingly penetrable from any angle. I had thought for months of going to Sacramento or somewhere else in California’s Central Valley not far from Berkeley, where I’d spent the spring. But warnings about the heat and the allergies put me off, not to mention my worry that the Latinos might be hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing for themselves, as they so often do.

I’ve underlined the part that, for lack of a better phrase, pissed me off! My initial reaction upon reading that sentence was, “What the f@#k?” Whether there is any merit to that statement, I do not know. And she could be statistically correct! But, does she have to be so condescending?! Should the aforementioned Latino population of California, apologize to this privileged person for populating shit jobs and crappy housing so that she can have this opportunity to pretend to be part of this underprivileged demographic? 

I kept reading with the hopes of there being some redeeming factor but, alas, there was none. Overall, the book was a drag hence the lengthy amount of time it took me to finish it. I’m not a fast reader, but I can certainly get through a book a lot quicker if it is engaging and captivating. This book was neither; at a certain point, it became a goal (task) that I wanted to complete merely for the sake of doing so. The reason I wanted to give this one a go is for two reasons: 1.) I found it in the bargain bin in my local Barnes & Nobel and 2.) I remember working crappy jobs in the earlier part of my youth when I lived off-campus in college with an ex-girlfriend and survived paying rent, credit card, cell phone (the flip variety), electric, cable bills, gas and groceries on an hourly wage of $6.00/hr part-time as work-study students. Yes, I’ve been there too and knew what it was like! Make no mistake, we both had parents that, if needed, they were more than willing to help us, but for the most part, we were on our own. That was real and sometimes scary when we were late with paying the rent and would find a letter from the landlord requesting payment or else!

And so, I was curious to read about her experience and how she coped. And she did a fairly decent job at doing so but, for the most part, I didn’t feel like she was all in and had the sole purpose of trying it out for a short period just so that she can write this book. I could be wrong, but, that’s the impression that came across. My recommendation? Pass – a hard pass. It was well-written, no doubt, but as I mentioned, she didn’t seem to be all there in her experiences and was just along for the ride with the end result always in sight – a book deal.

On to book #3. Still not sure what I want to tackle – back to Stephen King, non-fiction or some good ol‘ fashioned horror fiction. I think I’m leaning towards the latter.

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